In April of 2021, Sydney ocean swimmer Lauren Tischendorf battled large swells, crazy currents and shark-infested waters to become the first woman to circumnavigate Lord Howe Island.
In this feature, Suzie Ryan talks to Tischendorf about the epic 35km, thirteen hours, fifty-minute circumnavigation of Lord Howe Island, how she trained for it, the toughest part of the swim and her encounter with multiple sharks.
Ms Tischendorf has always loved being active and playing sports since she was a young child but it wasn’t until she moved to Sydney almost ten years ago that she started to explore ocean swimming.
“When I moved to Sydney I started watching people swimming in the ocean and it looked like something really nice to do,” said Ms Tischendorf.
“I had already been swimming in the pool and I decided to give the Bondi to Bronte ocean swim a go and I really loved it.
“I guess you could say I sort of got hooked on ocean swimming from there, and I started joining in on ocean swimming groups and I just keep swimming and enjoying it.”
One might ask, where does the idea to circumnavigate an island six hundred kilometres east of the Australian mainland in the Tasman Sea come from?
For Ms Tischendorf it was simple, she wanted a challenge, something to push her during the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, and most of all, she wanted an adventure.
“We were right in the middle of lockdown and I had been doing a lot of swimming, I was training the same amount you would if you were training for the English Channel,” said Ms Tischendorf.
“But the English Channel isn’t something that I was interested in doing, so I thought what swim can I do that is a similar distance?
“I really wanted something that I could do that would extend myself but also be an adventure and something I could do in the middle of lockdown and border closures wouldn’t affect it.”
After brainstorming places to swim with a friend, Ms Tischendorf decided on swimming around Lord Howe Island, which is a part of New South Wales.
“We started talking about Lord Howe Island and how it is actually a part of the state of New South Wales,” said Ms Tischendorf.
“This was the perfect place because if we were in lockdown and needed to stay in our own state, I can still technically be there, but it just doesn’t feel like it.
“I also loved the idea of Lord Howe Island because I love going into the ocean and finding different places to swim, different wildlife to see and different things to experience and Lord Howe Island offered all those things.”
Ms Tischendorf had already been swimming between thirty-five and forty kilometres a week in the couple of years leading up to the idea because of her love of swimming. So when it came to training for her Lord Howe Island challenge, she just had to add a few more sessions.
“I was incidentally training for long distances, out of the pure joy I have for swimming but when I was training to swim around Lord Howe Island, I was training once sometimes twice a day,” said Ms Tischendorf.
“I did four or five pool squad sessions a week (they were roughly 5-6km a session) and four to five ocean swims a week that varied in distances. On Thursday’s and Sunday’s, I would go for a gentle swim and on Saturday I would do a long swim, swimming for six to eight hours.
“One of the memorable long swims was the day I did six hours of laps at Bondi Beac. The conditions were terrible, huge waves, whining winds, overcast and the beach was empty, it was just me and the lifeguards.
“But that swim turned out to be a blessing because I ended up having similar conditions in parts when I swam around Lord Howe Island.
“I also did a bit of cross-training. I was doing a couple of weights and road running sessions.”
Having previously competed in long-distance endurance running events, Ms Tischendorf knew that she not only had to train her physical body but also her mental strength.
“I knew from my previous experience in endurance running events that I had to go into my head and to control the controllable and basically let things go if they don’t pan out,” said Ms Tischendorf.
“I couldn’t beat myself up if the tide wasn’t working for me in a session or even on the day of my swim, I just had to kind of deal with it because there is nothing I could do about it, I don’t control that stuff.
Ms Tischendorf knew before she set out on circumnavigating Lord Howe Island that she would encounter sharks at some point on her swim.
“Sharks were also a big thing. I knew I would see them because the waters around Lord Howe Island are swarming with sharks, there’s even a shark nursery on one side.
“Whenever you see a shark it can be quite scary but I just had to get used to seeing sharks when going swimming and it helped that on my ocean swims I would see sharks, dolphins and other different marine life.
“I just learnt to become immune to it and to control my thinking and breathing, so that I didn’t react because you can get frightened encountering those animals and they then sense that and they react.”
Every time I saw a shark I just put my hand up and yelled “SHARK!” and kept on swimmingMs Tischendorf
Even with the knowledge she’d encounter sharks on the swim, the amount she came across still surprised her.
“I saw heaps of sharks on my journey around Lord Howe Island, I got to about twelve and I had to stop counting because there were so many,” said Ms Tischendorf.
“I had a paddler and support boat next to me but when I got to the shark nursery the water got very choppy and it wasn’t safe for my paddler to be in the water anymore, so it was just me, the sharks and the support boat.
“From here, every time I saw a shark I just put my hand up and yelled “SHARK” and kept on swimming, just to alert my support team that they were around because it was so choppy they couldn’t see under the boat even though the water was an incredibly clear neon blue colour.”
While Ms Tischendorf saw multiple sharks on her journey around Lord Howe Island it was one encounter with a Tiger shark that she’ll never forget.
“I had this one Tiger shark come up really close to me, I like to describe it as if you imagine someone giving you an awkward hug and the shark is the person giving you the hug, that is how close it came,” said Ms Tischendorf.
“It was quite an unpleasant moment but I sort of just switched off and let it become a part of the process and the steps I had to go through to keep moving forward and finish the swim.
“It was a big lesson in reminding oneself to not react to things you can’t control and just letting them pass because I can’t control if a shark comes up to me in the ocean, it is their home.
Tischendorf now considers sharks her friends.
“You don’t realise that the sharks are actually quite placid, after the initial shock of them popping up, they just swim around,” said Ms Tischendorf.
“Now I go finding them in the ocean.”
Circumnavigating Lord Howe Island wasn’t all smooth sailing for Ms Tischendorf.
Becoming stuck in a current for two hours and the sun going down before completion tested her limits, but yet she preserved to become the first woman to conquer the Island.
I got stuck in a current… I was swimming backwards for two hoursMs Tischendorf
“There was a point where I got stuck in a current and I just couldn’t move, I was swimming backwards for two hours,” said Ms Tischendorf.
“I knew that becoming stuck in a current was possible beforehand but I had never experienced one with such strength before.
“I actually blocked out those two hours. Every half an hour I was stopping for food or drink so each half an hour I would use a different strategy to try and get through the current.
“I tried going slowly through it, taking a different angle and sprinting because I remember someone telling me that you can sprint your way through a current if you go really fast, well this didn’t work for me!
“It just left me exhausted because I could feel the lactate acid running through my body and then this was also when the sharks started popping up.
“But somehow the winds and current changed and got through it, which was the best feeling ever.”
After battling the ranging current for two hours the oceans of Lord Howe Island decided to throw one more challenge at Ms Tischendorf – the sun setting.
“I remember going around the south end of the island and I could vaguely see the endpoint,” said Ms Tischendorf.
“I knew I had about ten or so kilometres which is about three hours of swimming to go, in my head I knew I could get it done and be on the shore for a sunset drink, but unfortunately the sun went down within half an hour.”
“I was quite disappointed when this happened because in my head I thought I could do this before the sun went down and it was this point that I had to switch to another level and deal with it.
While the sun setting and Ms Tischendorf not conquering Lord Howe Island in the daylight was disappointing it also became the most magical part of the swim.
“It actually turned out to be one of the most spectacular and enjoyable parts of the swim,” said Ms Tischendorf.
“I had my mum on the IRB next to me flashing a light and I was swimming over the reef so I could see all the fish, anemones and coral lighting up and twinkling in the night sky.
“The night sky was also absolutely incredible, I would flip over on my back to do some backstroke and stretch out my shoulders and it was honestly the most incredible night sky above me.
“This part of the swim turned out to be really beautiful and while it was disappointing not make it into to shore when I wanted to, nature really wanted me to be out in the ocean to see its incredible sights.”
There’s no stopping Ms Tischendorf from finding a new adventure swim to tackle after conquering Lord Howe Island.
“The more common marathon swims don’t quite appeal to me like the English Channel, Catalina Channel or the Cook Strait,” said Ms Tischendorf.
“I am planning a new adventure swim though.
“I had been planning one for March but I think with everything happening with Covid right now it is just too risky.
“So that will have to wait. I might not do something this year, but I will definitely be doing something next year, so you’ll have to wait and see.”
Lauren Tischendorf answers some quick-fire questions:
I was already swimming between 35-40 km a week so I just added a few more sessions. I would swim 4-5 pool squad sessions a week (they were roughly 5-6km a session) and 4-5 ocean swims a week. I would do Thursday and Sunday mornings as gentle swims and on Saturday I would do a long swim, swimming for 6-8 hours.
I also did some cross-training which included weights and road running a couple of times a week.
There were probably two but they were when the sun went down early and I had to swim in the dark when I really thought that I could have made it to shore before sundown.
Being stuck in the current for two hours was also quite challenging, as you could imagine. I made a decision not long after this point to stop eating and drinking because it was getting quite choppy and I felt like I had been in the water for a long time and I was starting to feel a bit cumbersome.
Before the swim, I worked with a nutritionist to get the right carbohydrate to electrolyte ratio.
During the swim, I was having something every half hour. On the hour I was having a meal and on the half-hour, I was having a drink and some gel.
For my meal, I was having either a vegemite sandwich, dates with peanut butter stuffed in them or sweet potato. I was also having water, gel and black coffee.
There really were lots of favourite parts for me because there were such incredible sights swimming around the island but the first part was really beautiful because I left off just after sunrise and the water was so still, the island was so green and I was swimming over a lot of coral.
Getting to the north end of the island was also a favourite for me because the landscape was just magnificent. There were these big black cliffs, with bits of green and there was water splashing against it creating waterfalls and the water temperature was perfect and I had birds swooping the water around me and it was just truly beautiful.
My support crew were all terribly seasick the whole time but I didn’t know this until the next day.
I guess because the water was so choppy, but I had no idea from where I was in the water because they were all so supportive and amazing I had no clue.
There was one point where I thought “gee, everyone is a bit quiet, but I just thought ok and kept going”. From where I was in the water I was having a grand time and they didn’t give it away at all that they were seasick. So that shows truly how amazing they were.
All images are courtesy of Bradley Farley.
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